The Stafford London, by Kempinski, is one of those epitomal luxury hotels that actually IS what the first-timer expects, but often never finds… in fact, this one exceeds all expectations. If you were looking for the quintessential English pad, hidden far from the madding crowd, with more than a little hint of espionage, this, says the gal, is the one for you. It is so hard to find, by the way, that even after several visits she cannot remember which is the turning to take off St James’s Street. It is St James’s Place – follow this 200 yards until it turns right, into a cul-de-sac, and there is the hotel, on your right.
James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, used to come here from his flat in nearby The Albany, on Piccadilly. A long-time habituée was Nancy Wake, 1912-2011, a New Zealander who was high-ranking in the maquis groups of the French Resistance during WWII. By 1943 she was the Gestapo’s most wanted person, with a five million franc price on her head. She had come to England, joined the Special Operations Executive and was parachuted into the Auvergne. She became one of the Allies’ most decorated servicewomen. Her nickname was the White Mouse. After two husbands (one tortured and killed by the Gestapo, one died naturally) she moved into The Stafford in 2001. This May, this plaque was put up, in The American Bar – another Stafford legend, long-time GM Terry Holmes, was among VIPs there.
Oh The American Bar. Nancy loved it, as do so many regulars today. Early every evening private equity types flood in here, by the back entrance from the cobbled passage that leads direct from the hotel back to St James’s (their favourite drink is gin and tonic, but when the second wave of regulars comes it switches to wine, says the long-time amazing barman, Ben – Benoit Provost, protégé of the previous legendary barman, Charles Guano, who had himself been a WWII resistance fighter, as the White Rabbit).
The Stafford’s then-small American Bar was the hangout also of the US and Canadian officers stationed in London during the war. It must have been they who decorated the ceiling with bits of neckties, and baseball caps. Now that decoration has extended to hard hats and models of planes. What with American tourists from London Beach and Palm Beach and all those regulars, and the things hanging overhead, and walls covered with photos and cartoons… it is a jolly good thing that the bar area has now trebled in size.
The hotel itself is still a reminder that it was built in 1903 as a private home, for Lord and Lady Lyttelton. People come to the main hotel building’s lovely all-purpose eating area, The Lyttelton, for a Lyttelton afternoon tea, off elegant Wedgwood china, big glass-bulb chandeliers overhead. They serve all meals here too, with a bit of privacy afforded by enormous displays of white lilies (white mouse, white rabbit, white lilies..). Dinner might start with a splendid array of different heritage tomatoes, accompanied, of course, by the wines chosen from the sommelier’s bottles down in the 380-year old – sic – wine cellar. Tip: if you want a superb private dinner for up to 32 of your favourite people, take that wine cellar. And if you must go out, ask Concierge Frank Laino – he of Frankly Speaking – for ideas.
Other diners in the main room here are quite likely to be household names from the wine world, with a Mondavi here, a Pol Roger there. They, too, love this luxury hotel (my favourite rooms are in the new block). It IS so English, though it is also international. The breakfast buffet has French yoghurts and some of the best croissants around – after which I hurried away for meetings and as for lunch, well, Prêt à Manger is in on the kale kick, so I had a wholemeal sandwich with avocado, spinach and kale.